Reflections on a Journey — Part II – A Tourist in Burma

Posted in Tourism on June 9, 2011 by burmaperspective

My first two trips to Burma were primarily as a tourist. During those trips I fell in love. I took my first trip alone, and during the rainy season, which is the low season for tourism in the country. I cannot recommend strongly enough for first-time visitors to Myanmar to visit during the low season. I was frequently the lone foreigner on buses, on trains, at tourist sites and in tea shops. As the rain poured down, I huddled with locals under cover waiting for the bursts of torrential rain to ease. I waded gingerly with them through the flooded broken sidewalks of Yangon, trading warnings about gaping holes in the ground covered by water that had picked up who-knows-what along the way.

My time as a tourist included trips as far north as Mytchina, Southeast to Hpa-An and Moulymein, northeast to Mandalay, Pynn Oo Lyin and Hsipaw, Inle Lake, and many places in between. I traveled by bus, train, taxi, boat, and air. I stood with throngs of tourists during high season in Amanapura waiting to see the monks eat, and wandered the streets of Katha, where I was literally the only foreigner in town. I made may way up the mountain to see the Golden Rock. I watched gold leaf being pounded and prepared to be placed on a pagoda; I saw more than one reclining Buddha, and hundreds upright or sitting. I explored caves and wandered through rice paddies. I took a touristy boat ride on Inle Lake, which included a stop to see a cat jumping through a hoop and I finally got to see Padaung ladies up close. There are plenty of places to learn more about Myanmar’s sites, so I won’t go into much more detail. Let me just say this: The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is one of the most remarkable experiences in the world. It is worth the trip to Burma alone. Go there. Go many times, at different times of the day. Aside from marveling at the huge gold-covered structure, topped by a crown of jewels, you will see life unfold, as Burmese across class and ethnicity pray, talk, picnic, and canoodle. There is nothing like it. Continue reading


Reflections on a Journey Part I – Initial Impressions

Posted in Tourism on May 26, 2011 by burmaperspective

After 2 1/2 years of studying Burma on a near-full time basis, 15 months of which spent inside Burma or around its borders, I am now back at home. I will continue to research and write about Burma-related issues and will remain active in supporting development work inside the country and I hope to be back soon and often. But, as a major part of my Burma journey comes to an end, it is appropriate to reflect on what I’ve learned and how my perceptions have changed.

I first visited Burma on somewhat of a lark. I had actually been planning on traveling to Vietnam, but visa issues caused me to change my plans at the last minute and had me wandering through the streets of Kunming, China in the pouring rain searching for the Myanmar consulate. At that point I knew only two things about Burma – First, that it was home to the “long-necked” Padaung women that I had marveled over in the pages of National Geographic as a kid; and second, that it was ruled by a military dictatorship. This second point had caused me a small amount of trepidation as I walked into the consulate where I was the only tourist in the building. My initial fears were put to rest as, not only was my visa ready in 3 hours, but the consular officer actually kept the office open late for me so I could get the visa in time to make my flight the next day. Continue reading

Update From Yangon

Posted in Civil Society, Development on February 23, 2011 by burmaperspective

It is remarkable to me how much has changed in the year-and-a-half since I first visited Burma. As I mentioned in the previous post, the introduction of visa on arrival started an influx of tourism that was further compounded by the elections and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. The result has been a sea of foreign faces in places where I have never seen them before.

Small things are more expensive but big things are getting cheaper.* The exchange rate has taken a nose dive, dropping 15% since I started coming to Burma. Hotel prices are increasing. The price of a single air-conditioned room in my hotel has risen 60%. Cheaper rooms have had an even more dramatic increase. The price of a glass of beer, always a good judge of an economy, has risen about 20%. On the other hand, the price of a permanent cell phone number has dropped from $1000+ to $500 and is continuing to fall. Car prices are also dropping, though still are not in the realm of affordability for the ordinary Burmese. A used Toyota was around $30,000 on my first visit and I am told the price is now closer to $15,000. Locals expect the price to fall in half again in the coming year. Continue reading

Responsible Tourism

Posted in Tourism on February 15, 2011 by burmaperspective

Now that the calls for a tourism boycott Burma have largely been quieted (thankfully), the question turns to how to travel responsibly. The first question is whether one should even care about “responsible tourism.” Many people maintain the attitude that when they travel they are on vacation and shouldn’t have to be bothered with ethical or moral dilemmas while enjoying a holiday. Plus, the term “responsible tourism” sounds like it was hatched by a bunch of people sitting in a coffee house in Berkeley while gazing lovingly at a picture of Al Gore. For me, responsible tourism merely means taking a few minutes to learn and think about the differences between the value systems at your home and those in the country you are going to visit. If you are, say, a European visiting America, or an Australian visiting the UK, that process will take very little time. If, however, you want to take your holiday in a country like Burma, it may take a little longer. If this is not something that a person is willing to do, I respectfully suggest that you limit your travel to places that are culturally similar to your home, or travel to those pockets of other countries that have been already overtaken by tourists (There are plenty of lovely hotels on Khao San Road).

Once you’ve done some initial research, I largely think the decision of how to behave when traveling abroad must be left to the individual. Having been to Burma several times, other visitors often ask me how to behave in a given situation. For example, a young American was recently approached by a student standing outside a school on a Sunday afternoon. The student asked him for a pencil. When he obliged, a group of 30 more students appeared and also requested pencils. The American went to a nearby store and bought several packs of pencils to supply all the students. While sitting over drinks back at the guesthouse he asked me if he did the right thing. The next day I was approached by another traveler. He had been treated to lunch by a very poor family who clearly did not have the means to feed themselves well, much less treat guests to restaurant lunches. While this might seem odd, one sees this kind of hospitality all over Burma. Those with next to nothing will share whatever they have with guests before taking care themselves or even their children. The tourist told me that he was going to go back to see the family the next day to bring them some money. What did I think? Would they find it insulting? Is it the right thing to do? Continue reading

Blog Hiatus

Posted in Uncategorized on January 21, 2011 by burmaperspective

Beginning tomorrow, I will be in Burma.  For security reasons, I will not be blogging while inside the country.  I will add new posts upon my exit from the country next month.

The Current Burmese Moment

Posted in Articles and Essays on January 7, 2011 by burmaperspective

An essay I coauthored was published by the Assembly Journal website.  It can be found here.  The essay provides a very general overview on recent Burmese history and the current state of affairs.

Wikileaks Rangoon Cables Part I – Retribution vs. Development

Posted in Development, Human Rights, Sanctions on December 24, 2010 by burmaperspective

A few cables relating to Burma have been released in the newest batch of Wikileaks*   One, in particular, was particularly interesting.  It was written in 2008 by Shari Villarosa, the outgoing chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Rangoon and is a summary of her thoughts on a range of issues.  I am going to address several of the points she raises in the next few posts.

In the cable, Ms. Villarosa suggests that the United States may want to provide security guarantees to senior ruling generals in return for them stepping down.  This concept dovetails with some of my argument regarding a Commission of Inquiry in this post.  A blanket security guarantee would go further, eliminating, rather than delaying the possibility of retribution for the large numbers of people who have been unjustly imprisoned, forcibly relocated, or killed by the regime. The notion of what to do with leaders who have committed gross human rights abuses has been widely debated and discussed by scholars and human rights practitioners.  The International Center for Transitional Justice (which disagrees with my position on a Commission of Inquiry) is one organization that exists solely to deal with this problem.  An interesting discussion on the issue can be found here.   In my mind, the ultimate question of whether retribution should be traded off in order to accomplish goals of democracy and development should be left to the Burmese people.  Of course, how we determine the views of the “Burmese people” is a more difficult question that I will deal with in a later post. Continue reading